Weaning Calves on the Farm
Steven C. Loerch
Professor, OSU Animal Sciences Dept.
Weaning, marketing, and starting calves in a feedlot, combine to be the most stressful
events in the life of a calf. When these stressors occur in a matter of days, you are asking for
trouble. Calves are the most susceptible to shipping fever (Bovine Respiratory Disease) when
they are 6-8 months of age. Earlier in life, calves are protected from disease by maternal
antibodies from colostrum. When calves are yearlings, they have a fully developed immune
system and are better able to respond to a disease challenge.
So what do we typically do as beef producers? We take a 7-month old calf when it is
most susceptible to disease and we put a whole bunch of stress on it. Weaning, trucking,
vaccination, no feed, no water, crowding, co-mingling, new pathogens, new source of feed, and
new source of water. This is a wreck waiting to happen and it often does.
The U.S. beef industry is a $44 billion industry. The health problems due to transitioning
calves from the farm to the feedlot cost the industry about $700 million annually. Treatment
costs, death losses, poor performance, and lower quality grades result when calves get sick. The
best way to reduce these costs is to reduce the stress of transition from the home farm to the
feedlot or backgrounder. Taking steps to prevent disease is always better than having to treat
disease after it occurs. You can’t solve the Bovine Respiratory Disease Complex with just a
bottle of antibiotics.
The best way to keep calves healthy is to vaccinate before calves are stressed and to
reduce, eliminate, or spread out the stress calves are exposed to. Details on vaccination
strategies will be presented in other articles of this series. Bottom line is that stressed calves
don’t respond as well to vaccines. If you don’t vaccinate prior to these stresses, some calves
may not develop antibodies soon enough to be protected from respiratory disease the first 10
days after feedlot arrival.
Many management strategies can be employed to reduce calf stress at weaning time.
Castration and dehorning is best done when calves are young (1-3 months of age). These
procedures should not be performed at weaning time. Calves should be weaned at least 30 days
prior to shipping. This separates the stress of weaning from all the other stresses associated with
marketing and feedlot arrival. Shipping less than 30 days post weaning is not recommended for
several reasons. A 30-day period gives plenty of time for calves to learn how to eat from a feed
bunk and recoup the post-weaning check in weight gain. Actually weaning 45 days before
shipping may be more profitable because the calf producer will have more pounds of beef to sell.
Thirty days also gives plenty of time to respond to vaccines and be better protected from disease
Calves can be weaned on pasture or they can be confined in a drylot. Supplemental feed
is needed to meet energy and protein needs for growth and the immune system. Calves that
remain on pasture should be provided with a grain-based supplement in a bunk. Grain intake
should be 5-10 lbs/day based on quality of pasture and the eventual destination of the calves
(backgrounder vs feedlot). Target gains should be between 2 and 3 lbs/day. There is some
evidence from Canadian researchers that weaned calves actually do better if they have fence line
contact with their dams. You may want to move cows to a pasture adjacent to the calves, rather
than the traditional “out of sight, out of mind” approach. A recent California article on this can
be found at: http://danrrec.ucdavis.edu/sierra foothill/sfrec_2002_fenceline_weaning.pdf.
Calves weaned in a drylot should be fed about a 50% grain, 50% forage diet. Feed good quality
hay. A weaning diet should be 45-50 Mega calories of NEg/100 lbs of feed dry matter and
contain approximately 16% protein. Protein, vitamin, and mineral requirement must be met so
calves can grow and have a fully functioning immune system. A high quality protein, vitamin
and mineral supplement from a reputable feed company is recommended. Adequate bunk space
is necessary so all calves can eat at once (1.5-2 ft/calf). Clean, fresh, water should always be
available. Avoid finely ground, dusty feeds. Cracked corn works well and is one of our cheapest
source of calories. Creep feed for 2 weeks before weaning will ease the transition to bunk
feeding after weaning. Alternatively, fence-line feeding a small amount of grain to cows and
calves a few days before weaning is a good substitute if you don’t want to creep feed.
Facilities and Animal Handling
Facilities for handling calves don’t need to be fancy or elaborate. Drylot pens should be
small to reduce fence waling and allow closer observation. Pens should be dry but not dusty. I
was in Saskatchewan last September working on a weaning project and we measured how far
calves walk the first two days after weaning. Calves weaned into big feedlot pens (without fence
line contact with their dams) walked 10 miles the first two days after weaning. Bawling, dust
and exhaustion definitely contribute to Respiratory Disease. Feed and water should be located
on the perimeter of the pen because that is where the calves will be. If weaning on pasture, the
same principles should be used. Working facilities also don’t need to be fancy, but they should
be designed to allow easy movement of calves through the chute. Weaning time is when we
realize the fruits of our labor for the year. Weaning time should not be a rodeo. Avoid crowding
and bruising calves. Work calves slowly, calmly, and quietly. The process is noisy and stressful
for the calf in the best of circumstances. Don’t add to stress with a lot of yelling. Avoid whips
and hot shots. This whole process is like putting your child on the bus for the first day of
kindergarten. Look for opportunities to be gentle.
In summary, weaning management affects the quality and value of your calves. It is the
key component in a planned marketing strategy.